Dominic Savage, 101 mins, starring: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Frances Barber, Marthe Keller, Jalil Lespert
Gemma Arterton has given several performances as unhappily married women. She was Gemma Bovery, cuckolding her husband, in Anne Fontaine’s comedy drama adapted from Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel updating of Flaubert’s novel; she was the fed-up wife of the philandering sportsman played by Idris Elba in 100 Streets. Now, in Dominic Savage’s The Escape, she takes matrimonial misery to a new level.
Arterton plays Tara, a young mother with two children who is living a stifling suburban existence somewhere in the home counties not too far from Ebbsfleet. Every day, her husband Mark (Dominic Cooper) sets off for work, leaving her to deal with the domestic drudgery.
Savage makes continual use of handheld, in-your-face camera work to convey the claustrophobic nature of Tara’s everyday life. He films Arterton as if she is the main subject in some fly on the wall documentary.
We see her in oppressive close-up, peeling and scrubbing the vegetables, picking up the kids’ mess or offering drinks to friends at a barbecue Mark has offered. There are always toys strewn on the floor or cereal spilt on the kitchen table. The sex scenes are determinedly unromantic.
“I am not happy. I can’t do this anymore,” is her conclusion as the daily grind wears her down.
Arterton gives a typically nuanced and sensitive performance as the wife and mother too ashamed to admit that, no, she doesn’t love her kids and that she simply no longer finds family life appealing.
She is itching to escape. Tara seems to recognise herself in the romantic and forlorn figure of the lonely woman pictured in mediaeval tapestries of “The Lady And The Unicorn.” (She has reproductions of these in a book she buys on a solitary trip to central London.)
For all the emotional complexity Arterton brings to her role, the film itself just doesn’t ring true. The melodramatic, piano-heavy score is incongruous. Cooper is strangely unsympathetic as the husband. He claims Tara is the centre of his world but behaves boorishly toward her. He’s the patriarch who wants his food on the table, his shirts ironed and for Tara to make love to him on demand.
Her mother (a cameo from Frances Barber) isn’t likeable or kind to her either, warning her that she’s lucky to have such a privileged life. The interlude in which Tara takes the EuroStar on a whim strains credibility too. She is shown wandering around dirty Parisian streets near the EuroStar station as if she is in a romantic never land.
A lecherous French photographer (one part Serge Gainsbourg, one part Johnny Hallyday) just happens to spot her and come courting her at the museum she visits. Tara may be having a breakdown but she looks remarkably chic and doesn’t seem to suffer from any financial worries. If she is lost in the city, there is sure to be some kindly French matron who will take pity on her and offer her a roof for the night.
The film’s ending is enigmatic and unsatisfactory. In spite of the title, we are given very little sense that the troubled heroine has found any way out of the maze.
The Escape hits UK cinemas 3 August.